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Authors: Richard Bausch

In the Night Season

BOOK: In the Night Season
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In the Night Season

A Novel

Richard Bausch

Again, for Karen

I am grateful to Harold Stusnick and Dave Brewer for important technical advice on the new wave of advancements regarding computer chips. William Kotzwinkle helped immensely, by sending me books. George Garrett provided the kind of bedrock advice one is seldom fortunate enough to get from any quarter. Cary and Karen Kimble provided light and laughter. And Nicola C. Neil, at Fauquier National Bank, was very helpful in showing me some of the ramifications of bulk storage in a bank. I am also the beneficiary, once again, of the kindness, graciousness, and wit of R. S. Jones. Finally, Karen printed out the manuscript and proofread it one rainy night in June, while I was miles away playing guitar, badly, in a bar. That is the sort of loving that ought to be reported in print.

R. B.

Terrors are turned upon me: they pursue my soul as the wind: and my welfare passeth away as a cloud. And now my soul is poured out upon me; the days of affliction have taken hold upon me, my bones are pierced in me in the night season: and my sinews take no rest
.

Job 30:15–17

D
URING THE FALL, A GROUP CALLING
itself the Virginia Front began a hate campaign aimed at what might accurately, if with dismay, be called the traditional targets for such things at the end of the American century. The campaign took the form of letters and circulars, threats, mostly, the product of desktop publishing, with crude color graphics—doubtless the work, said the commonwealth attorney, of a coterie of nutcases with a computer, shaved heads, and a book. The book, predictably enough, was
Mein Kampf
. The circulars began arriving on the desks of various county officials and in the regular mail of some citizens, including several people the Front evidently considered worth addressing directly—people whose publicly stated opinions or whose behavior the group found wanting in terms of their very specific and obvious agenda.

One of these was Edward Bishop, a TV and VCR repairman who made house calls in the county and kept a small workshop in his home, an old farmhouse on five acres of grass and trees above Steel Run Creek. Mr. Bishop had made no public statements, and he was not a public figure, really, though almost everyone in Fauquier
County knew him. His family went all the way back to the eighteenth century in this part of Virginia, though their position, back then, and on into the middle of the nineteenth century, was understood in law and in the minds of almost everyone as being no more or less than property—chattel, salable goods, as Mr. Bishop would occasionally put it, when his long family history came up. “This is, after all,” he would say, “a former slave state.”

He described himself as a black American. He had served in Vietnam and been wounded—there was a piece of shrapnel still lodged in the bone of his left leg, just above the ankle—and he had a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for valor. He was fifty-six years old, enjoyed a good business, and was trusted by a large clientele. Indeed, he was taken for granted by a lot of people: a quiet man, even a loner of sorts, who went his own way. A man with the self-sufficiency and the slightly eccentric attitude of someone used to falling back on his own resources.

He had recently formed a friendship with the young white woman who lived in a neighboring house, perhaps six hundred yards away down Steel Run Creek Road. He walked over there in the late afternoons, during the week, to spend time with her eleven-year-old son—actually, to provide adult supervision for the boy, who was unused to coming home to an empty house. When she arrived from her job teaching in town, Mr. Bishop sometimes stayed to dinner. It was often well after dark before he made his way back down the road to his own house. He had not spoken about this arrangement with many people, other than the clerk at the local Country Store, and his housekeeper, who happened also to be white.

But someone had seen him, or the boy had said something at his school, and word had got out to the Virginia Front.

And one morning in late November, Mr. Bishop found in his mailbox a message in boldface type, on the letterhead of the organization, written over an ugly graphic of a hanging black man with bugged-out eyes and a very red tongue:

Watch your step with the white woman. We are
.

It was not signed, nor had it been mailed. Someone had come by and put it there, folded like a business letter. He stood gazing at it, in the chill of the morning, and then looked up and down the road. The innocent countryside seemed abruptly almost alien to him, as though it contained some element of the poison he held in his hand. He folded it back and put it in his pocket. He intended to ignore it. But it troubled him; it made him feel as though some border of his privacy had been violated, and later in the day he drove over to the county police headquarters. He spoke to a detective named Shaw, a thin, graying man, perhaps forty-five, with tired, sad eyes and a manner that seemed rather tentative. They sat in a warm, too-tidy office, while sunny wind shook the windows. People rushed around in the street below, collars turned up against the cold. Edward Bishop thought about all the comfortable assumptions of safety. A big bank of dark clouds was moving in from the west. It looked like the encroachment of trouble to him.

“Do you think this is a real threat?” Shaw said, rubbing the flesh on either side of his nose. Bishop noted that there were thin forking veins in the red cheeks. It was a rough, hard-living face which, in the circumstances, did nothing to reassure him. He wished for someone younger.

“Of course it’s a real threat,” he said. “I feel threatened. That makes it a threat. I think somebody must be watching me. I haven’t been talking to anybody, or said anything. I watch the lady’s kid for her in the afternoons. I’m her neighbor. She’s run up on some bad luck, and I’ve been helping her out.”

The detective folded his hands on the desk. “It wouldn’t be anybody’s business if there
was
more to it than that, Mr. Bishop.”

“Yeah, but there isn’t. Her husband died in February. He didn’t leave any insurance and she had to go back to work. The kid’s started messing up in school.”

“I’m saying this isn’t anybody’s business but yours, sir.”

“I know that. You don’t need to tell me that. I’m just telling
you
what the situation is. Somebody thinks it’s
their
business. And I can’t figure out how in the hell these people know I’m spending any time over there unless they’re watching me.”

“Is the boy okay with you coming over?”

“I think so. He seems all right about it. If he isn’t he’s fooled me good.”

“And there’s nobody else—”

“My housekeeper. I’ve been carrying her, though. She knows I can’t really use her, and I’ve been paying her anyway. She comes in twice a week. She needs the money—there’s no motive for her. It has to be that somebody’s watching me.”

“You sure it’s not her they’re referring to in this?”

“I guess it could be.”

“You go around to people’s houses, right?”

Mr. Bishop felt a surge of impatient anger at the soft-spoken policeman. “I’ve lived here all my life. Whoever this is came to my house. I’d like to know what the hell is going on.”

“I’m really sorry about it,” Shaw said. “We’re trying to track the thing down. To tell you the truth, I think it might be some high school kids playing ugly little games.”

Another man entered the room—younger. Tall and long-faced and black. He offered his hand, and Detective Shaw introduced him as Officer Bell.

“Pleased,” Bishop said to him.

“I was just telling Mr. Bishop that we think this Virginia Front stuff might be kids playing games.”

“What’re you basing that on?” Bishop looked from one to the other of them.

“Just a guess, really,” Shaw said. “The intermittent nature of their communications. Some of the language.”

“You think somebody the boy knows—he’s in middle school.”

“Could be.”

“Well, now what do I do?”

“I’ll have a car swing by your place a couple times a day for a few days. There’s usually somebody out that way anyhow. Maybe we’ll stumble onto something. But these kind of things—these types don’t usually
act
on their threats.”

“I’m going to tell you guys something,” Edward Bishop said. “I mean to protect myself and my home. You understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” Shaw said. “I understand you perfectly. Could be you’ll never hear any more from this. But let me keep it, and we’ll see what we can come up with.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it eventually,” Officer Bell said.

“Thank you,” Bishop told them.

They shook hands, and Bishop made his way back home with a sense that an individual couldn’t really hope for much from the authorities in a situation like this.

He watched through most of the following morning for a police car, and when one came by, slow, he felt a little better. Apparently, Shaw was a man you could depend on to keep his word. But that afternoon, walking across the field to the neighboring house, he had the feeling he was being watched by unfriendly eyes; the dark line of trees on the other end of the field was threatening now. He hated the change.

The boy was already home and had gone up in the attic. It took him a long time to make his way down to the door.

“You know your mama doesn’t want you hanging out up in that attic,” Bishop told him. “And you know I’m coming. How about meeting me at the door once?”

“A cop came to talk to me today, at school.”

Bishop followed him into the kitchen. “What did he say?”

“He asked how many people I’ve talked to about you. Who I’ve talked to.”

Bishop waited a moment. The boy had opened the refrigerator, got out a carton of milk, and was pouring it. His dark hair hung down over his eyes. “What did you say?” Bishop asked him.

“I told him the truth. I’ve told a lot of people about you.”

“You want to tell
me
about it?”

The boy, whose name was Jason, looked up at him, pushed the hair back from his brow. “Well, I have. I’ve told a lot of people that you come over here to watch me so I don’t get in trouble.”

“And you’ve said I’m black?”

Now, the boy concentrated on the milk. “I guess so.”

“How come?”

He was drinking the milk.

“How come, Jason?”

“Well, people said my mom would fall in love with you and you’d be my father. I just said you were older. And the—and the rest of it came out.”

Bishop could imagine the conversation. It filled him with a sense of weariness. “I’m not trying to hide my color from anybody, son.”

“Well, that’s how it came out.”

It occurred to Bishop that in fact he had never really been given any clear sign that Jason liked or disliked the arrangement; he seemed merely to accept it, as though it were weather, something he lived in and over which he had no control. “Do you not like it that I come over here to look in on you?”

“I didn’t say I don’t like it.”

“But you don’t.” Bishop had an image of Jason walking over to his mailbox with the folded piece of paper in his coat pocket. No, this was not that kind of boy. This boy was suffering and had been sullen at times with that, but he was not mean, and Bishop remembered remarking to himself that Jason didn’t seem afflicted with the usual failure to see through Bishop’s color to Bishop himself. He had felt that they were nearly friends. “It’s okay if you don’t,” he went on. “It is, after all, supervision. It’s natural to resent it.”

“I don’t resent it,” Jason said.

“I just meant I’d understand if you did.”

“I don’t.” He appeared near crying now.

“All right, well—forget it,” Bishop said.

“What happened?” Jason wanted to know.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Bishop told him. “Really.”

 

But there were two more communications from the Virginia Front over the next week, and Bishop grew more worried; his work began to suffer. He kept hearing sounds. He was beginning to distrust his imagination. He kept going to the windows to look out.

Nights were long and troubled. He slept poorly.

A family of wild cats lived under the porch. Sometimes they chased each other and ran across the railing, and occasionally they knocked something over. He had tolerated their presence because
they kept field mice away. But perhaps he would have to do something about them now. They kept waking him; they reminded him. The night after he’d got the last message he spent sitting in the wing chair downstairs in his living room, a deer rifle across his lap, waiting for light to come to the windows.
I know just about every soul here, black and white. And they know me
. The silence, the quiet of himself in the house alone, occupied his mind. It was absurd. This was his home. He tried going about his business, getting through the day’s tasks. But there was the police car gliding by in the mornings, slowing to a near-stop, then going on. And he couldn’t shake the sense of alarm that rose in him with each sound of the house, his own house. When he called Detective Shaw, he got the answering machine. He left messages, but Shaw never called back. And one morning, early the following week, there was another letter in the mailbox, this one with a drawing of a man lying in blood; the man looked like one of those minstrel-show blacks—a white man in blackface:

Keep it up. We will repay. The woman & her son will burn with you
.

He phoned Shaw and read the newest communication into the answering machine. “I know you don’t believe this is serious, Mr. Shaw. But it’s got me fixed good now. I am carrying my rifle with me when I leave this house for any reason.”

That afternoon, Shaw called him back. “Bring the thing in, if you don’t mind, Mr. Bishop. I’d like to have a look at it.”

He drove to the station, keeping one eye on the faces in the windshields of the oncoming traffic.

Detective Shaw stared at the paper for a long time, saying nothing.

“Well?” Bishop said. They were sitting in the tidy office again.

Shaw put the paper on his desk. “People are getting this kind of thing all over the county. It’s ongoing, I’m afraid. And we don’t have much to go on. I wish there was something I could tell you about it. Three churches have received threats of arson, and somebody painted a swastika on the door of another one.”

“You don’t have a single lead?”

“Nothing that’s panned out, no.”

“You’ll keep the cars coming by?”

Shaw nodded. “Like I said, we make the rounds out that way anyhow.”

“Thank you.”

 

He took to watching for the cars. He moved his worktable to the window facing out onto the road and the mailbox, and there he sat working. And at the end of that week, when he went over to the next-door house and waited for the boy’s mother to come in, he determined to speak to her about the situation. He stayed for dinner, helping with the preparations, and he waited until Jason went to bed. She sat in the glare of the kitchen light, one strand of hair falling over her forehead, a perfectly lovely young woman with a faintly haggard look about the mouth, the look of grief and overwork, and the striving to keep afloat in a sea of troubles.

BOOK: In the Night Season
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